Friday Reads: Economic Anemia

Good Morning!

MuslinVoodooDoll-2Since I’m in the middle of revamping my course for Graduate Finance Students in International Finance and reviewing textbooks and the usual stuff, I thought I’d focus on the economy for the morning.

One of the most awful results of the Reagan years has been the creation of mainstream paranoia over policy using  data evident from the scientific method, intellectuals and academics that spend years researching and learning theory and empirical evidence, and the idea that government can’t ameliorate issues through policy but is somehow a potential enemy of the governed.

This kind of paranoid drivel used to be the realm of militia types like Clive Bunday and John Birchers like the Koch Brothers and father.  It had no place in mainstream discourse until Reagan started pumping up the idea that poor people game the government and the government games every one else.   Its now spread to Christian extremists, the NRA, and most of the Republic Party.

Let me give you the latest example of someone who is possibly going to be a Senator from Iowa.  Joni Ernst is doing the Sharon Angle thing of declaring any government issue she doesn’t like her potential enemy and any one supporting that view as a potential target of her nice little gun that she carries with her everywhere. 

Joni Ernst, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Iowa, said during an NRA event in 2012 that she would use a gun to defend herself from the government.

“I have a beautiful little Smith & Wesson, 9 millimeter, and it goes with me virtually everywhere,” Ernst said at the NRA and Iowa Firearms Coalition Second Amendment Rally in Searsboro, Iowa. “But I do believe in the right to carry, and I believe in the right to defend myself and my family — whether it’s from an intruder, or whether it’s from the government, should they decide that my rights are no longer important.”

Ernst made the remark a little more than a month after gunman James Holmes allegedly killed 12 people and injured 58 in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Ernst’s campaign did not respond to The Huffington Post’s request for comment about the remark on Wednesday evening.

Earlier this year, Ernst released an ad in which she points a gun at the camera and vows to “unload” on Obamacare.

We’ve also experienced this massive attempt to rewrite secondary school textbooks and curricula to reflect the deeply held philosophical and religious views of these folks rather than theory or empirical evidence brought about by hundreds of years of research and scholarship.  This also ignores primary documents that show just the opposite to be factual.

But, facts be damned, there’s children’s minds to warp.  Biased ideas are not at the center of legitimate academic pursuit. Folks that follow agendas tend to live at the edges of universities and most departments are quite embarrassed by them. I spent time in a department where one research professor’s favorite pursuit was proving that iqs and brain sizes among varying races were the reason for underachieving groups in an economy.  All DNA evidence shows that race is a social construct but this guy spent a life time trying to show the relationship between brain sizes of races and incomes and jobs.  So, most time when you see folks that believe this stuff, they reside some where on the fringes.  However, since the Reagan years, there’s been a major attempt by right wing religious zealots to teach propaganda and there’s been a rather significant increase in the level of ignorance on things from incoming freshmen.

This is happening even in economics where you would think that paranoia about “communism” would’ve gone away since the fall of the USSR.  Not true, however.  They prefer to fear imagined boogey men and to set up  imagined fairy tale rescuers over doing policy that’s be proven effective in years of empirical study.

The standards’ authors are clearly fans of the free enterprise system, consistently emphasizing the advantage of American capitalism over other structures.

For example, the high school standards state that students should be able to “understand how the free enterprise system drives technological innovation and its application in the marketplace.” The middle school standards clearly promote free enterprise capitalism over other economic systems, saying that students should be able to “compare and contrast free enterprise, socialist, and communist economies in various contemporary societies, including the benefits of the U.S. free enterprise system.” Finally, the standards connect capitalism with the conservative ideal of limited government, asking students to be able to “explain why a free enterprise system of economics developed in the new nation, including minimal government intrusion, taxation, and property rights.”

It really takes very little time spent in economics to realize that political constructs are not economic constructs. For example, the United States economy was founded on Mercantilism which began with monopolies, charters, grants and largess of royalty and aristocracy.  The concepts of Capitalismimages (3) and of Communism had the same roots and they were a lot more philosophical than ever real.  Even, now, we have a modified market system.  There has never EVER been a “free market” system or “communism” in an economic sense.  Socialism is just one end of a modified market system and still relies heavily on private ownership of the majority of factors of production.  Most facets of government policy are to make a market behave closer to a free market model because it can’t possibly d0 so under one factor, characteristic, or situation that exists. I mean really, who wants to leave the market for uranium to the free market?  That’s just an extreme example.

The problem is that dogma has overtaken reality among folks that now find themselves in office.  It’s bad for the country.  It’s bad for business. It’s bad for nearly every one.  The one thing that’s becoming abundantly clear since the Clinton Presidency and definitely during the Obama Presidency is that the Democratic Party is the party of Wall Street and Big Business.  It’s not the Republicans.  No where is this more evident than economic reports written by the private sector.  Today’s Republicans scare the shit out of big business and finance.  The last few battles to keep the federal government and the deficit funded has nearly caused market meltdowns twice. You also don’t see them complain about increasing the minimum wage or decreasing the current level of income equality.  NO REALLY.   This means Chris Christie is really going to have some ‘splaining to do over this statement. 

Labor Secretary Tom Perez on Thursday panned New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s comments that he’s “tired” of the minimum wage debate.

“Chris Christie’s got his head in the sand if he’s getting tired about the minimum wage,” Perez said according to Bloomberg Politics.

President Barack Obama and Democrats have led the push to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10, and the issue has made its way onto the campaign trail this year.

“Chris Christie needs to talk to his economists, who will tell him that 70 percent of GDP growth is consumption,” Perez said Thursday.

The criticism came just days after Christie said he was “tired of hearing about the minimum wage” at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce conference on Tuesday.

“I really am,” the Republican governor and potential 2016 hopeful said. “I don’t think there’s a mother or a father sitting around the kitchen table tonight in America saying, ‘You know, honey, if our son or daughter could just make a higher minimum wage, my God, all of our dreams would be realized.'”

“Is that what parents aspire to for our children?” Christie asked. “They aspire to a greater, growing America, where their children have the ability to make much more money and have much great success than they have, and that’s not about a higher minimum wage.”

Before the Labor secretary chimed in, the remark drew fire from other Democrats, and White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest even quipped during a briefing Wednesday that people living on a minimum wage are those who are really tired.

Christie also used his time at the podium to make a 2016 prediction.

“I am convinced that the next president of the United States is going to be a governor,” Christie said. “We’ve had this experiment of legislating .. and getting on-the-job training in the White House. It has not been pretty.”

voodoo-doll-670So, this kind’ve talk is really making the economists of Wall Street and of huge corporations very nervous.  They’re quite aware that today’s Republican Party is tanking the economy.

Even though Republicans depict themselves as the party for business and banks, it turns out that the GOP’s economic policy is detrimental to their bottom lines and continued existence; particularly rising costs and stagnant wages since the Bush-Republican Great Recession. What both bankers and retailers really want instead of tax cuts, deregulation, and more Republican austerity and budget cuts are better incomes for all Americans that will lead to increased consumer confidence and greater purchasing power to trigger higher business profits. What they have learned after thirty years of “trickle-down” is that the trillions of dollars taken by the 1%, especially since 2009, have failed miserably to stimulate the economy. Instead, they demand more buying by the masses that Wall Street firms and analysis of 65 of the nation’s top retailers claim will only happen with, as President Obama preaches, growing the economy from the middle-out.

For example, in a report last month titled Inequality and Consumption, Morgan Stanley economists said, “Despite the roughly $25 trillion increase in wealth since the recovery from the financial crisis began, consumer spending remains anemic. Top income earners have benefited from wealth increases but middle and low income consumers continue facing structural liquidity constraints and unimpressive wage growth. To lift all boats, further increases in residential wealth and accelerating wage growth are needed.” Republicans completely disagree and either resist consideration of raising the minimum wage or promote abolishing it altogether. According to the Republicans, increasing income inequality must continue and it is crucial that they convince the population that no wage is too low. It is a belief the Koch brothers espouse but it is rapidly losing favor in circles whose survival depends on a population of consumers.

Standard and Poor’s (S&P) rating agency concurred with Morgan Stanley’s economists in their August report, How Increasing Income Inequality Is Dampening U.S. Economic Growth, And Possible Ways To Change The Tide, and strongly advised the federal government to create “a path toward more sustainable growth, that in our view, will pull more Americans out of poverty and bolster the purchasing power of the middle class. A rising tide lifts all boats…but a lifeboat carrying a few, surrounded by many treading water, risks capsizing.” To “lift all boats,” S&P suggests a “high degree of rebalancing” that includes increased “spending in the areas of education, health care, and infrastructure to help control the income gap that, at its current level, threatens the stability of an economy still struggling to recover.” Contrary to wisdom of real economists concerned with America’s economic survival, Republicans across the country have been laser-focused on their austerity crusade to cut spending on education, infrastructure, and healthcare including the cruel heartlessness of refusing free Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.

Despite the call from both banks and businesses to increase the minimum wage and spending on essentials for a robust recovery, congressional Republicans have obstructed and outright blocked each and every attempt by the President and Democrats to stimulate the economy. Despite trailing every developed nation on Earth in infrastructure, Republicans consistently refuse the President’s calls to increase spending on desperately-needed infrastructure repairs including roads, bridges, public buildings, and sewers that numerous economists, including some highly respected conservatives, say is crucial for job-creation, increased consumer spending, and a vibrant recovery. Increased consumer confidence, and spending, is something all economists agree is for the good of the country’s economy but can only happen if incomes rise for the majority with higher wages and more well-paying jobs.

I’ve said this a million times but it’s true.  If you have an economy that’s 70% reliant on consumer spending for growth and 99% of the population has stagnant to falling real income, you’re going to run into trouble.  Especially since a huge part of that 99% spends high levels, all of, or beyond black-voodoo-dolltheir income and wealth levels.  Years and years of evidence has shown that consumers are the real job creators.  No business hires workers if no one is buying their goods and services.  Rich people–especially with some of the horrid changes we’ve had in the tax code during the Dubya years–are spending more and more of the income and wealth on gambling paper for paper profits.  This does not create anything of value in a real economy but it sure creates asset bubbles and the potential for financial meltdowns.   One has only to survey retailers to figure out the relationship between incomes of the middle and working classes and their bottom lines and their hiring plans.

Former Walmart U.S. CEO Bill Simon, whose company had seen consumer traffic drop for six straight quarters and same-store sales drop for five quarters, explained in July 2014 that “we’ve reached a point where it’s not getting any better but it’s not getting any worse—at least for the middle (class) and down.” Kip Tindell, CEO of the Container Store, put retailers’ feelings best when he said, “consistent with so many of our fellow retailers, we are experiencing a retail ‘funk.’” The culprit is obvious: low wage and income growth for the middle class. Median household income in 2013 stood 8 percentage points below its 2007 prerecession level.

The simple fact of the matter is that when households do not have money, retailers do not have customers. The failure of incomes to keep up with the growing cost of college, child care, and other middle-class staples leaves even less money for retail spending. A previous analysis by the Center for American Progress shows that this so-called “middle-class squeeze”—stagnant incomes and the growing cost of middle-class security—leaves the median married couple with two kids with $5,500 less to spend annually on food, clothes, and other essentials that retailers sell.

Or, as officials of J.C. Penney—whose sales fell 9 percent in 20136—put it when listing the risks to its stock value: “the moderate income consumer, which is our core customer, has been under economic pressure for the past several years.”

Moreover, retail spending—which includes spending on everything from clothing to groceries to dining out—has broad implications for the entire economy since it accounts for a large fraction of consumer spending, which itself makes up 70
percent of U.S. gross domestic product, or GDP.

Even Walmart is concerned even while not paying living wages, not providing good benefits, and not creating an environment where a worker feels secure about his/her future.  Now the weird thing is that fringe economists are still overly scared about inflation and high taxes.  These things, however, are not at the top of any one’s concerns that would be invited on any Fox News program.   Here’s a headline from Forbes: “Want a Better Economy? History Says Vote Democrat!”.  In 2012, a number of books evaluated the results of the economy under Democratic vs Republican administrations.  The results are startling.

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan is attributed with saying “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.“ So even though we may hold very strong opinions about parties and politics, it is worthwhile to look at historical facts. This book’s authors are to be commended for spending several years, and many thousands of student research assistant man-days, sorting out economic performance from the common viewpoint – and the broad theories upon which much policy has been based. Their compendium of economic facts is the most illuminating document on economic performance during different administrations, and policies, than anything previously published.

The authors looked at a range of economic metrics including inflation, unemployment, corporate profit growth, stock market performance, household income growth, economy (GDP) growth, months in recession and others. To their surprise (I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Goldfarb) they discovered that laissez faire policies had far less benefits than expected, and in fact produced almost universal negative economic outcomes for the nation!

From this book loaded with statistical fact tidbits and comparative charts, here are just a few that caused me to realize that my long-term love affair with Milton Friedman‘s writing and recommended policies in “Free to Choose” were grounded in a theory I long admired, but that simply have proven to be myths when applied!

  • Personal disposable income has grown nearly 6 times more under Democratic presidents
  • Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has grown 7 times more under Democratic presidents
  • Corporate profits have grown over 16% more per year under Democratic presidents (they actually declined under Republicans by an average of 4.53%/year)
  • Average annual compound return on the stock market has been 18 times greater under Democratic presidents (If you invested $100k for 40 years of Republican administrations you had $126k at the end, if you invested $100k for 40 years of Democrat administrations you had $3.9M at the end)
  • Republican presidents added 2.5 times more to the national debt than Democratic presidents
  • The two times the economy steered into the ditch (Great Depression and Great Recession) were during Republican, laissez faire administrations

The Obama economy is actually surprisingly good given that a large number of good economic policies have not been enacted due to Republican political kung fu.images (4)

It was no joke on Thursday when I asked Austan Goolsbee, a pretty fair amateur comic, to rattle of key economic indicators that are trending in very positive ways right now.
“Jobs created. Weekly U.I (jobless) claims. Unemployment rate. Auto Sales. Gas Prices,” said Goolsbee, former head of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers and a onetime winner of the annual “D.C.’s Funniest Celebrity” contest.

And, yet, as a headline in Politico.com also noted Thursday, “Economic Anxiety Dominates 2014.” So what’s really and truly up? What explains the disconnect between seemingly very strong numbers and the lack of love for Obama and the Democrats?

“You can’t brag about the economy because people can’t feel it,” said Thomas Bowen, a Chicago-based Democratic political and policy consultant.

“I’m sure (some) Democrats have polled this: ‘The recovery isn’t working for you.’ That’s why they’re not running on the economy improving.

Not long after, I was driving past a state unemployment office along a rather somber commercial strip on Chicago’s Northwest Side. The parking lot was full. And then I mulled the folks I know working part-time involuntarily or sticking with jobs they don’t especially like out of fear of the limited alternatives.

“You’re talking about indicators in the last six months,” said Bowen. “But look at the start of the recession until today. We’re just getting out of the hole from jobs losses. And the jobs aren’t the same. They’re not higher paying construction jobs.” “Not all indicators equate with average folks,” said Anna Greenberg, a Washington-based Democratic pollster.

“Wages and salaries are stagnant,” she said. “Yes, the stock market is up and the jobless rate down. But the cost of living is up and you may not have more money.”

images (5)So, a lot of economists like me remain very confused.  It’s not like there’s not support by people and businesses for good policy like infrastructure projects, improving the terms of student loans so more folks can access higher and continuing education, and a reasonable minimum wage.  The cities and states that have raised the minimum wage are even those that are doing well among states.   States that have raised their minimum wages have better job growth.

New data released by the Department of Labor shows that raising the minimum wage in some states does not appear to have had a negative impact on job growth, contrary to what critics said would happen.

In a report on Friday, the 13 states that raised their minimum wages on Jan. 1 have added jobs at a faster pace than those that did not. The data run counter to a Congressional Budget Office report in February that said raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, as the White House supports, could cost as many as 500,000 jobs.

The Associated Press writes:

“In the 13 states that boosted their minimums at the beginning of the year, the number of jobs grew an average of 0.85 percent from January through June. The average for the other 37 states was 0.61 percent.

“Nine of the 13 states increased their minimum wages automatically in line with inflation: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. Four more states — Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island — approved legislation mandating the increases.”

The AP notes: “[The] state-by-state hiring data, released Friday by the Labor Department, provides ammunition” to the camp in favor of raising the minimum wage.

“Economists who support a higher minimum say the figures are encouraging, though they acknowledge they don’t establish a cause and effect. There are many possible reasons hiring might accelerate in a particular state.

” ‘It raises serious questions about the claims that a raise in the minimum wage is a jobs disaster,’ said John Schmitt, a senior economist at the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research. The job data ‘isn’t definitive,’ he added, but is ‘probably a reasonable first cut at what’s going on.’ “

So, it just appears that there’s a huge portion of the United States electorate and elected that would rather live in their dream world of imaginary beings and dogma than have their lives made better by using what we know and what we’ve learned.

What’s on your reading and blogging list today?